The escalation set the stage for a perilous ground conflict. In waging ground combat, France is entering the comfort zone of the rebels, who know the desert terrain and are veterans of guerrilla warfare. They have blended into the local population, occupied houses and are hiding in mango groves to stage ambushes, residents said in telephone interviews.
“The jihadists are mixing with the people, moving around in small groups of five,” said Salif Ouedraogo, an aid worker. “They are preventing people from leaving Diabaly. They want to use the people as human shields.”
What began as a campaign of aerial assaults now appears to be expanding into a ground war, raising questions about France’s military capability and political will to defeat the Islamists, a melding of al-Qaeda militants, religious zealots and criminals who seized a Texas-size territory in northern Mali in March. Although French forces have had experience combating guerrillas recently in Afghanistan, they have not played the lead role in a counterinsurgency campaign since France’s colonial days.
“The French military today, although capable, is certainly not the French military that once conquered much of Africa,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center in Washington.
Earlier on Wednesday, it was unclear whether the ground operations had begun.
An all-out attack on the town by French ground forces would sharply raise the risks of casualties and criticism of the operation from within France, where leaders across the political spectrum have expressed support so far. Fighting would probably have to proceed at close quarters, house to house, robbing the French forces of the overwhelming technological advantage they have had while their role was limited to airstrikes and attempts to bolster the disorganized Malian army.
It would be a dramatic change from the 2011 Libya intervention, in which no French casualties were reported despite months of bombing and the presence on the ground of an unknown number of special forces.
In the wake of a March military coup, the Islamists piggybacked on a rebellion by secular Tuareg separatists that drove out the government from northern Mali and divided the country into two. Weapons from the late Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s arsenals that were smuggled into northern Mali helped drive the rebellion.